The owners and staff of The Northshire Bookstore and The Silver Fork shed light on the future of two of Manchester’s most beloved businesses.
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
In the enchanting town of Manchester, Vermont, the streets are alive with the spirit of generosity and kindness. Manchester is widely-known as one of Vermont’s most beautiful and welcoming towns, and it is also celebrated for its independent and family-owned businesses. The altruistic ethos of this marvelous mountain community is not only expressed through the magnanimous donations of philanthropically-minded residents who support local cultural organizations – it is also manifested through the thoughtful and considerate stewardship of the families who oversee its most treasured institutions and historic buildings. One such family is the French family, who collectively own both The Northshire Bookstore and The Silver Fork. They run each business separately as two cooperative husband-and-wife teams, united by their shared commitment to the continual betterment and beautification of Manchester.
According to Clark French, he and Lu made the decision to acquire The Northshire Bookstore in early 2021 after a series of deep and thoughtful conversations with the esteemed bookstore’s previous owners, the Morrow Family. “Lu and I have been living here in Manchester for years,” says Clark. “Our kids went to school at Burr & Burton Academy, and we’re firmly grounded in the Manchester community. When you take on the responsibility of owning a business like The Northshire Bookstore, it’s important to remain similarly grounded by a deep sense of deference and respect for the citizens of this wonderful town that we live in. It’s also crucial to understand just how meaningful The Northshire Bookstore is to them. The Morrow family put a lot of love and hard work into building The Northshire Bookstore into what it has become today. We don’t want to change any of the things that have made The Northshire Bookstore so successful. Our only aim is to continue to ensure that the bookstore remains relevant, financially solvent, and safe for another 45 years, so that people can come here to enjoy the magical Northshire experience for generations to come. It’s a big responsibility, but we are grateful to be able to take it on. Everything we do at the Northshire Bookstore on a daily basis is made possible by the tireless efforts of everyone who we have the privilege of working with, and all of the loyal customers and local supporters who make this town such a fantastic place to live in.”
One of the staff members responsible for the unparalleled experience provided at the bookstore is Stan Hynds, who has worked as a book buyer there for the past 21 years. According to Hynds, his main duties at The Northshire Bookstore include monitoring the inventory and sales of both store locations, re-ordering new books based on demand, and pre-ordering books that have not yet been shipped out.
“Here at The Northshire Bookstore, our bestselling categories include fiction, American history, cooking, and political nonfiction. There’s also been a recent uptick in the sale of romantic comedy novels. It’s always interesting to watch different trends fluctuate over time.” Hynds says that over the years, he has developed a keen sense for which books to order based on his past experiences and his knowledge of industry dynamics. “When you work in a large bookstore, such as Northshire, you are able to provide a wide range of titles for your customers. On one hand, we are certainly selective and curatorial with how we choose our offerings, but we also want to offer a broad spectrum of books to accommodate readers of all tastes and preferences.” Through his work at The Northshire Bookstore, Hynds is proud to maintain positive relationships with sales representatives from major publishers, who provide crucial analytical information that helps him determine which books are best for the Northshire Bookstore’s specific consumer market.
On the floor of The Northshire Bookstore, clients have the privilege of freely conversing with friendly sales associates, such as Alden Graves. Graves has manned the Northshire registers and shelves for over two decades, and has built a stellar reputation for himself as a well-versed arbiter of historical fiction. He says that one of the best things about his job is getting to know his customers and their unique literary tastes. “I enjoy talking to people who come into the store about books, and I really appreciate the fact that I am allowed to speak honestly about my personal opinions,” says Graves. Graves adds that throughout the bookstore, visiting patrons will likely notice the “recommend tags” on the covers of various books that bear the names of the booksellers that work there. “If you see a tag with my name on it, that means that the book has my personal stamp of approval.” Up on the top floor of The Northshire Bookstore, a colorful and vibrant labyrinth of shelves beckons children, young adults and their families to experience the wondrous power of imagination. Jessica Wood is the bookstore’s children and young adult book buyer. She also oversees the purchasing process for gifts, such as quirky table games, plush toys, and fetching household products. “My favorite thing about children’s books is that they’re not just magical for the young people who read them,” says Wood. “They also provide a chance for their parents and family members to rediscover their own sense of curiosity and see the world from a fresh perspective. People of all ages come here and are able to find a book that transports them into fantastical worlds beyond their wildest dreams.”
A little over a mile down Main Street, Mark and Melody French have recently relocated the Award-Winning Silver Fork restaurant to its new location at the historic Mark Skinner Library building. After working closely with Lu French on an ambitious restoration and renovation project that has spanned almost two years, the multifaceted makeover is nearing its conclusion, and the results are truly spectacular.
In addition to being the co-owner of the Northshire Bookstore with her husband, Clark, Lu is an accomplished graphic designer and interior decorator. “I got my start in the field of design and interior decoration shortly after I quit my job as a clinical pharmacist in 1998 to spend some more time with my family,” says Lu. “I had some mentors who helped to show me the ropes along the way, but I am mostly self-taught in graphic and interior design. I’m very passionate about mid-century modern architecture, so I was thrilled to play a pivotal role in the renovation of the Mark Skinner Library building.”
The Mark Skinner Library was originally commissioned in 1892, and construction was completed in 1897. It was designed by F.W Stickney, a prominent and well-respected 19th-century architect. A subsequent addition built in 1964 was designed by Shipley, Bullfinch, Richardson, and Abbott. At the time, they were one of the country’s most in-demand mid-century modern architectural firms. After the Manchester Community Library was moved to a new location in 2014, the original building was sold at auction to a private buyer in 2015. The property was then intended to be converted for residential use, but the home renovation project was never finished. When the Mark Skinner Library building went back on the market, it sat unoccupied for several years in a state of relative disrepair. Lu French says that when she and Clark French initially made the decision to purchase the property, the surrounding landscape was deteriorating and one of the windows was broken and boarded up.
“We bought the property at auction in December 2019 because we knew that something needed to be done. We wanted to preserve the legacy of the library, keep the town beautiful, and build it back better than ever before. In the beginning, we didn’t know exactly what to do with it.” Shortly after, Clark and Lu reached out to Mark and Melody French to see if they were interested in moving their restaurant to the Mark Skinner Library building.
Lu recalls that from the moment Mark and Melody first walked through the doors of the Mark Skinner Library building, they were incredibly excited about the property’s potential. After several months of fastidious planning, Lu began the process of converting the formerly abandoned library into a world-class culinary landmark that incorporated aspects of mid-century modern design. “We began the renovation at the beginning of the COVID pandemic and at the time, we didn’t know how long the pandemic was going to last,” says Lu. “Initially Mel wanted lots of space between the tables to create privacy and intimacy for patrons. The layout worked out beautifully because it also served to accommodate any potential health concerns. The booths face back-to-back, providing ample breathing room for the guests. The air conditioners are placed high above the dining room to avoid cross-ventilation.”
Lu says that by partnering with efficient and savvy furniture suppliers, such as Wayfair, she was able to effectively navigate the considerable logistical challenges presented by the COVID shutdown. She also collaborated with several local craftspeople and contractors during the course of the renovation project. A skilled contractor named Brian Kelly helped to renovate the building and re-orient the flow for the restaurant, and an East Dorset-based sign maker named Richard Farley built the colorful custom-made wooden chandelier drums that hang over the main dining room.
“Richard was also able to take the old wood from the remaining library shelves in the room that currently houses the Silver Fork’s kitchen and use it to build an amazing wooden bar in the middle of the restaurant,” says Lu. “Shawn Harrington loaned us one of the original catalogs from the library, as well as several wooden plaques that pay tribute to the influential people who played central roles in the library’s trajectory. The card catalog is now in the main foyer, and two of the plaques are hung on a wall in the main dining room. We put some bookcases between the lounge area and the dining room to give it the same majestic and dignified feel as the old library, and we worked with Executive Director Anne Corso to source some exquisite paintings from the Southern Vermont Arts Center. The paintings were done by Anthony Surratt, Chalice Mitchell, and Dona Mara. Each of the paintings is available for purchase upon request. We’re proud to be able to support the local arts scene, and I love the color and depth that the paintings bring to the space.”
“My aim is to create vibrant and memorable spaces that are comfortable and inviting,” says Lu. “For this project, specifically, I wanted to make a space that would draw people in and put them in a warm and relaxed mood. The Silver Fork is an incredible restaurant, and I wanted to make sure that the visual and aesthetic experience of dining here perfectly complemented the exceptional culinary experience that Mark and Melody provide their guests.”
As co-owners of the critically-acclaimed The Silver Fork restaurant, Mark and Melody French are overjoyed with the results of the recent renovation. Mark French is a virtuosic and versatile chef who first got his start in the food industry after he left high school to pursue his passion for the culinary arts. “I apprenticed under a German chef who worked at a country club in Pikesville, Maryland near my native city of Baltimore,” recalls Mark. “I worked with him for four years. During that time, I got of a lot of much-needed experience in high-pressure situations by entering in American Culinary Federation competitions. The chef that I worked for owned a bakery, so I also worked there at night. He taught me everything from butchering to how to properly work line service. It was a very well-rounded experience that prepared me for all of my future culinary endeavors.”
From there, Mark moved west and ended up in Kansas City in 1986. It was there that he met his future wife Melody, who was working at a restaurant there. Mark then took a job at the Hilton International Hotel in Kansas City. He then transferred to a hotel in Toronto, and then to another hotel in Puerto Rico. Several years later, he opened his own restaurant, “Mark’s at the Mélia” at the Mélia Hotel in Ponce. He ran that restaurant for thirteen years and won several awards at American Culinary Federation events in Puerto Rico as the captain of their national team. After transferring back to the United States to take another job in St. Louis, his brother Clark called him up and told him that there was an excellent opportunity to open up a high-caliber restaurant in Manchester. “I came up to visit, and I knew that it was right. We moved up almost immediately. That building was the original location of The Silver Fork before we moved to the Mark Skinner Library building.”
After gracing the Manchester community with phenomenal service, food and drinks for a decade, The Silver Fork has recently received well-deserved accolades for both its cuisine and its design. Tripadvisor ranked The Silver Fork as the “Best Date Night Restaurant in America” as part of its annual “Travelers’ Choice Best of the Best Awards,” and Wayfair.com gave The Silver Fork a 2021 Tastemaker Award for “Most Cohesive Design with Social Distancing.”
From the moment that you first sit down for a romantic dinner at The Silver Fork, it’s clear that their commitment to artistic cohesion goes well beyond visual aesthetics. Their well-balanced food and wine menu features delicious highlights such as Salmon Strudel wrapped in spinach & filo and Paella Mixta with chorizo, cilantro chicken, mussels, shrimp and cod (which happens to be Chef Mark’s favorite dish on the menu.) Melody oversees the “front of house” and bar program at The Silver Fork with graceful panache and finds great fulfillment in helping her guests navigate the menu to find a wine, beer, or cocktail that perfectly complements their meal. A knowledgeable oenophile, Melody started out in the service industry as a restaurant hostess. She then worked her way up through the ranks from cocktail waitress to bartender, before becoming an extraordinarily proficient and perceptive wine saleswoman at Harry Starker’s, a high-end restaurant in Kansas City.
Melody’s confident and individualistic spirit is obvious in the distinctive and sophisticated drink menu at The Silver Fork. The bar features an eclectic range of quality Vermont-brewed beers, and the wine list boasts a broad assortment of deliciously-nuanced selections. According to Melody, their 2018 Bodegas 1808 “Valcavada” from Rioja, Spain brings out the bold and satisfying flavor of their Churrasco Skirt Steak, while their Salmon Strudel is nicely-enhanced by their 2019 Paul Prieur Et Fils French Sancerre. “Sometimes people don’t realize that the sauce can make all of the difference in a wine pairing,” says Melody. “Salmon is often paired with heavier white wines, such as Chardonnays, but Mark makes a wonderful high-octane lemon butter here, and I like to serve a wine with it that’s incredibly piercing and enhances the lemon flavor in the sauce. I always recommend the Sancerre with the salmon, because its citrus notes blend seamlessly with the lemon butter to create an outstanding, flavorful experience.”
In addition to locally-sourced beers, Chef Mark goes out of his way to work with local independent food suppliers, such as family-run farms, cheesemakers, and mushroom foragers. Mark believes that as the owner of an independent restaurant, he owes it to his community to support local businesses. “We get a lot of our cheese from Consider Bardwell up in Pawlet. They do wonderful work. I buy locally-made bread from Oliver over at Earth Sky Time Farm here in Manchester, as well, and I buy my fish fresh from the local fish market down on Richville Road. I also make a point of buying several pounds of wild-harvested mushrooms from local foragers whenever they are in season. One of the foragers came to me when he was first starting out (before he even had an official business card.) Through my repeated purchases, he’s been able to significantly grow his operation. We try to be mindful of our place in the community in all of our dealings. One of the best things about owning a restaurant in Southern Vermont is that people go out of their way to help each other out, both in business and personal matters. We’re grateful to be able to live and work here, and we’re excited to keep doing what we love for years to come.”
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THE SILVER FORK